Oct 23 2011
Here’s some advice on keeping superpowers novel throughout your story.
1. Have the character(s) put the superpowers to different uses. If you’ve already had your characters stop a bank robbery, it might be more interesting to have them prevent an assassination or conduct a high-speed chase or solve a difficult crime that has already happened than, say, stop a robbery at a jewelry store. Varying your scenes gives you a better chance to leave readers guessing about what will happen and how.
2. Please try some different obstacles and hazards, hopefully something the character isn’t used to. For example, if a character can fly 100+ miles per hour, an ordinary car chase probably won’t be very interesting because there’s so little challenge. For example, what if there’s a massive windstorm (either natural or controlled by a superpower or magic)? Chicago had 50+ mph winds a few days ago and it was hard enough to walk without getting knocked over, so I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to chase someone in the air. If the character is used to using his powers in a very deliberate and methodical way (e.g. like a telepath might benefit from concentration or Batman might benefit from preparation), what will he do in a fast-moving crisis that caught him by surprise?*
*Don’t try to tell me that “OF COURSE BATMAN WAS READY FOR A SHARK ATTACK–THAT’S WHY HE HAD EXPLODING SHARK REPELLENT.” Only madness lies that way.
2.1. Please keep low-risk uses of superpowers to a minimum. For example, the scene where a character first tries using his powers is usually pretty low-risk (e.g. Peter Parker testing what his webs can do). As a brief scene, that’s not a huge liability, but if you have 3+ characters with superpowers, I wouldn’t recommend spending pages putting each character in such a situation. I feel that one character just testing out his powers tends to come off surprisingly like any other character just testing her powers out, even if the powers are different. One possibility is that the characters learn and/or test their powers in a risky situation. For example, maybe the characters are tested for something like admission into a superhero team shortly after developing superpowers. If the character really wants to make the team, the learning process will probably be higher-stakes and more interesting than just webbing around town.
3. Show us an experience, preferably one we haven’t seen before. It might help to try forcing the character to occasionally use his powers in a way they are clearly not meant to be used. For example, a character that has wings might have some success using them underwater (i.e. like flippers). What would it be like to try flying underwater or, umm, maybe activate flame-based powers underwater? What would it be like using forcefields as a makeshift telekinetic power? (Probably more messy than actual telekinesis, I’d imagine). If a fire-controller needs to cross a 10 foot chasm, would it be possible to use his powers to create enough recoil to send himself sprawling over the chasm? How does a guy with a massive laser rifle deal with a situation that requires a more gentle touch than killing everybody, like dispersing rioters?
4. If there are any limitations to the characters’ powers, maybe they come into play. How does the character get around these limitations? For example, in the third X-Men movie, the soldiers prepared for Magneto’s metal-controlling powers by getting rid of anything metal. Magneto got around that by bringing the Golden State Bridge with him. Alternately, perhaps the character’s powers are unusually unreliable or unavailable during the scene. For example, maybe your powersuited character runs out of fuel for his jets, so he either has to scrap together some alternative (fast food grease: I’m lovin’ it as an extremely primitive fuel?) or figure out how to save the day without flying.
5. If you have several superpowered characters, you might try different combinations of characters on various missions. For example, if you have a team with a fragile psychic, a marksman, a tank like the Hulk, and a ninja, the marksman will probably be in the same sort of relatively-safe support role, letting the tank take the hits. Mixing up the rosters on various missions helps give characters chances to test skills they probably wouldn’t use much otherwise.* If the next mission pairs up the marksman with just the psychic, the marksman’s role would look pretty different. For example, he might be a lot closer to the action so that he takes fire and/or distracts the enemy, which would be totally unnecessary if his partner were the unjolly green giant. Alternately, what does a ninja do if his partner is the Hulk? Should he just assume that stealth is out from minute one or try to do something stealthy on his own before giving the tank the signal to come in? (Good luck getting the Hulk to wait that long, though).
5.1. Here are some reasons the team might mix up the roster rather than use everybody on every mission.
- There’s more than one emergency and the team had to split up to deal with all of them.
- Some of the members may be too far away at a particular moment to respond to an emergency.
- Heroes might be physically incapacitated or otherwise unable to help.
- The situation might call for a smaller team. For example, maybe it’s a stealth mission or transport space is limited.
- Some members have other responsibilities and are only available during particularly grave situations.
- Some members might be deemed liabilities on a particular mission. For example, you’d probably want to leave the Human Torch behind for a mission in a chemical plant or the Hulk for a mission anywhere. Alternately, in a more bureaucratic organization (like a police organization), members might be on administrative leave if they’ve done something to annoy the boss. (Like threatening to eat a district attorney).
- The organization might want to leave somebody in reserve in case another disaster strikes, particularly if supervillains have done diversionary attacks before.
- The organization is large and coordinating all of the members is complicated. Bringing along everybody could result in more collateral damage than necessary.
- The organization might split up the members into smaller units to be more efficient. For example, in real life cities, the police will typically patrol in pairs, but might deploy hundreds or thousands of officers in a large-scale conflagration like a riot, a hippie convention or a 49ers game.
- Keeping the heroes with the same few teammates as much as possible helps them build camaraderie and practice effective teamwork. For example, in the military, I think soldiers are more likely to feel really close to their teammates on their fireteam (population: 4) than other members of their company (population: ~150).
- Splitting into smaller groups gives the organization more opportunities for developing leaders. For example, when the police need to replace a captain, competent lieutenants frequently get the nod. In contrast, if your organization only works as one unit, then it would probably be gratuitously difficult to replace the leader if he leaves or gets temporarily incapacitated, because nobody will have much leadership experience besides the first guy.